The Powwow

by James McGirk

My wife and I moved to the capital of Cherokee Nation, a small city in Northeast Oklahoma called Tahlequah, a few months ago. Tahlequah, as the would-have-been capital of a proposed all-Indian state, Sequoyah, is arguably the center of indigenous culture in the United States, or at least it has a plausible claim to be. Last Saturday, the local college, Northeastern State University, hosted a powwow as part of their annual symposium on the American Indian. A powwow is a tribal gathering. Having never seen one before we decided to watch. We saw Native American traditional rites mixed with, for lack of better way to describe them, that unique American civic culture of card tables and paper cups. If anyone reading this knows what’s going on in any of the following pictures, I’d be delighted to hear it.

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A picture of the Cherokee National Color Guard: they marched behind the American flag, followed by the orange colors of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the black POW/MIA flag (which commemorates American prisoners-of-war and missing in action). Two of the flag bearers wore swords. The Guard wore red and black, with tribal insignia and American military patches sewn on them. At times the company was lead by an elderly man carrying what a cursory Googling reveals is the tribe’s “eagle head staff.”

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There was a drum circle in the middle of the dancing area. During the ceremony the area around the drummers is consecrated. Occasionally, at the end of song, there were “giveaways,” and people would sprinkle bills at the drummers feet. The spectators’ seats were arranged in two wings, one on either side of it so we faced the dancers, instead of the small stage where the master of ceremonies stood. Throughout the dance the drummers kept up a relentless beat. I believe the first dance we saw was a Gourd Dance, because they called on the crowd and invited any and all veterans to join them. The women danced on the periphery while the men danced inside.

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Many of the dancers weren’t Cherokee, but came from other tribes in Oklahoma or even further away. The Head Man Dancer was from the Ho-Chunk Nation, while the Head Lady Dancer was Otoe/Osage/Pawnee/Sac & Fox. Following the “grand entry” came five hours of intertribal dancing. Prizes were awarded in different categories: princesses, young participants who wore crowns and represented a category of tribal life (it was a similar to a pageant, a few of the younger ones wore satin sashes); mens’ fancy, straight, traditional and grass dancing; and womens’ fancy shawl, jingle dress, cloth and buckskin dancing. We didn't stay to the end.

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We left after an hour of dancing, before the winners were announced, with the sound of drums ringing in our ears.

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